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ENGLAND : The Timeless Thames

October 20, 1985|BARNABY CONRAD | Conrad, an inveterate traveler, is the author of more than 20 books.

The noblest river in Europe," Joseph Addison said of the Thames back in 1712. And you know, old boy, he might have been correct.

"There are two things scarce matched in the universe," Sir Walter Raleigh said: "the sun in the heaven and the Thames on the earth."

And we had them both on this glorious English morning as we headed our boat down the sun-dappled river at 5 m.p.h., the top speed allowed.

The Upper Thames--the name of which evolved from the Celtic Taom-Uis (the pouring out of the waters)--is neither deep nor fast-flowing--"a lyezy rivah" in the words of Peter Barnes, a charming Londoner who was to be our guide and boatman for the week. Upstream, the Thames is surprisingly narrow, considering its broad expanse near London. It is very clean, and we saw swimmers all along its pollution-free length as far as Hampton Court. Three-quarters of London's drinking water comes from it.

The Thames Conservancy gained control of most of the river in 1858, stipulating that it "be preserved as a place of regulated public recreation." And it is hard work to maintain its pristine beauty; only one floating beer can sullied the waters during our entire five-day, 40-mile journey. "Some foreigner," Barnes sniffed, offended. "You may wager on it." The Thames is so clean that salmon are caught in its waters regularly.

We had pushed off earlier in the morning from Abingdon, where Barnes had left his boat in front of the Upper Reaches Hotel. The rare craft is known as a Thames Slipper Stern, an attractively archaic 28-foot inboard with lines that drop gradually and gracefully from a high, perpendicular prow to the water-line at the stern; it was an artifact that Tom Swift might have built and loved. The cockpit, barely big enough to accommodate four Rover Boys, was open but had a canvas top folded back at the ready.

"An old-timer," said Barnes, affectionately caressing the mahogany parquetry of its deck, "and a good 'un." (You also can rent--reasonably--various sizes of houseboats that you can learn to handle yourself very quickly.)

As we were getting on board, photographer Loomis Dean came rushing down from the hotel, two cameras swinging from his neck.

"Just got over from Paris," he panted. He handed us a bucket of ice that cradled a large wine bottle. "A good Pouilly Fuisse--travels bravely."

Barnes blew the hooter , and we cast off.

"What wonderfully untypical weather," Dean said, as he adjusted his tweed golf cap, removed his Leica lens cap and started taking photos. "What a day!"

What greeted the eye as we headed toward our goal--luncheon at Streatly--was a happy, busy, liquid thoroughfare. Used and respected by thousands of Britons every day, the river is the biggest holiday resort in the Isles, visited by more people than Blackpool. One sees every type of floating craft--rented houseboats, racing sculls, classic refurbished steamboats from 10 to 60 feet in length, barges, excursion boats resembling floating omnibuses, incongruous, giant Indian war canoes with inboard motors, tiny kayaks with schoolboys trying for a free ride by surfing the wake of an outboard, and an occasional sailboat tacking nervously around the power craft. Yet, somehow, despite all the activity, there is little feeling of congestion.

Unlike the rules for cars on England's motor ways, boats are supposed to keep to the right of the river and pass the upcoming traffic on the left side. The skipper of one houseboat, apparently untutored in that fine point, headed directly toward us. Barnes, who has driven the river all of his life, gunned his motor and swerved skillfully toward the bank, avoiding a decided unpleasantness.

"Scofflaw!" he barked angrily over his shoulder at the erring craft as it skimmed by. "Port-to-port, you foxy beagle!"

The scenery was relentlessly, archly picture-post card--tinted engravings lifted from a Victorian novel. Even the sight of modern boats couldn't dispel the feeling that we somehow had slipped breathtakingly backward in time. We passed towns called Tadpole and Sutton Courtenay and Clifton Hampden, and--suddenly--up on a hill would be the ruins of a castle, and over on one bank would be a little 13th-Century church and graveyard, and on the other side a herd of black-and-white cows drinking their reflections. On both sides were Victorian gingerbread cottages and charming Tudor manors with curried lawns undulating down to the water, as well as elegantly dressed Britishers lounging in white wicker chairs shaded by willows. An elderly couple playing backgammon in front of a brick mansion waved cheerily to us.

Ever since our arrival in England, we had experienced a gentility that could not be found anywhere else.

Now, the entire countryside seemed to reflect that genteel manner as the Thames bore us past stately houses punctuated by the greenest fields ("pigment straight from the tube," my old art professor would have said), where blooded horses grazed on lush farmlands.

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